Long history of safe hydraulic fracturing in Australia and overseas

August 18th, 2016

Anti-development activists in the Northern Territory continue to claim that hydraulic fracturing is too risky.

In the following letter to the editor of the NT News, ERIC director Steve Wright provides some historical facts to help reassure those who have heard misleading activist claims.

Keeping our underground water safe for drinking is a genuine concern, but history tells us that in the case of drilling for gas, it need not be an alarming one.

Ross Day (NT News 17 Aug)  raises good points, but his key assertion, that gas extraction will harm aquifers, has no basis in 100 years of history in Australia, and more overseas.

Gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing has occurred safely onshore and offshore in the NT since the 1970s and the history goes back further in neighbouring States.

Queenslanders first used local onshore gas for street lighting in Roma in the early 1900s.   In the past decade, more technically advanced drilling into coalbeds in exactly the same area has set up a multi-billion-dollar industry,  yielding the same product, in much greater volumes, for use locally and for export as LNG (as has been happening safely in the NT for a decade).

Queensland natural gas will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of Government income this financial year, which can be poured into roads, schools and hospitals.   The NT has an opportunity to share in the natural gas boom, and it has little to fear, if the industry is properly regulated, as it has been across Australia for many decades.

In South Australia, Cooper Basin oil and gas developers have been drilling directly through the Great Artesian Basin since the 1950s and have been using the supposedly ‘new’ and ‘risky’ practice of hydraulic fracturing since the 1960s.  There has been no aquifer contamination and cattle graze happily on the surface among the wells directly above the shale gas resources being tapped kilometres below.

It is not right to say that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are “hazardous and in high concentration”.  In fact the reverse is true – the chemicals used are in very low concentrations and most are variants of laundry and swimming pool cleaning agents that householders  handle every day.

It is also misleading to suggest that any chemicals left behind after hydraulic fracturing occurs, typically two or three kilometres below ground, will somehow connect with shallow aquifers (usually less than 200m deep) drilled for drinking water.  Typically, layers  of non-porous rock separating these levels make chemical migration practically impossible.

Concerns about this process are understandable, and interest in proper development oversight is to be encouraged.   But uncritically accepting the alarmist claims made by anti-oil and gas activists does not help people to make their own balanced assessments.

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